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Elephant trek tragedy: Victims speak from Phuket hospital

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PHUKET: A Swiss woman is dead and three other foreign tourists are in hospital in Phuket after an elephant went berserk during a trekking tour in Surat Thani yesterday.

Speaking from his wife’s bedside at Bangkok Hospital Phuket this afternoon, Australian tourist Sean Gothe said he and his wife Helen were among eight couples on a one-day tour to Khao Sok National Park.

In the afternoon, the Gothes climbed aboard their elephant, a 31-year-old female, and the other couples did likewise.

At about the half-way point in the ride, three or four of the animals met in a clearing and the mahouts (elephant drivers) exchanged cameras to take photos.

At this point, one of the elephants went berserk and attacked the elephant the Gothes were riding on, trying to rip off its trunk.

All of the elephants ran off in different directions, with the berserk beast giving chase to the one with the Gothes on board.

Mr Gothe and his wife feared that they and the elephant would fall off a cliff to their deaths as the mahouts desperately tried to calm the animals, Mr Gothe said.

Both animals were bleeding from being struck by the sharpened metal tools used by the mahouts, he added.

The retaining bar on the Gothes’ elephant’s saddle eventually dislodged and Mrs Gothe fell off the right side.

Mr Gothe said he feared she had hit her head on a rock as she lay motionless on the ground while the elephant beneath him continued to run full tilt into the distance.

The crazed elephant was carrying a Swiss woman in her 60s and an Englishmen who was paired up with her for the trek by the mahouts.

The elephant threw off the mahout and the Swiss woman, who was then intentionally trampled to death by the enraged animal.

The Englishman was able to get off the elephant without major injuries.

Mr Gothe said the Englishman’s mahout had told the couple earlier that the elephant was a male.

Female elephants are typically used on elephant trekking tours because they have better dispositions.

One of the animals that ran off in fear took 90 minutes to calm down sufficiently to allow its terrified riders to dismount, the Australian said.

All of the injured are now being treated at Bangkok Hospital Phuket.

The most seriously injured is a Swiss woman with 12 broken ribs and a punctured lung, Mr Gothe said.

Mr Gothe had kind things to say about the mahouts and junior staff at the Siam Safari tour company that organized the trip, but said he was furious that senior management had not contacted any of the injured.

“All they did was send us a fruit basket,” he said.

The Phuket Gazette called the Chalong-based company this morning, but the operator said the management found it inconvenient to make a comment at that time.

The company has been running eco-tours in Southern Thailand for 21 years.

Pol Lt Col Apidej Chuaygue of the Phanom District Police in Surat Thani said the accident happened at about 3pm at the Khao Lak Safari site in Klongsok subdistrict.

The mahouts said the fight started when playing among some male elephants suddenly turned to anger.

It was the first such case at the Khao Lak Safari operation, the owners of which have already been charged with negligence resulting in death.

Some of the individual mahouts have also been charged, the policeman said.

The Phuket Gazette is withholding the name of the dead woman pending notification of next of kin.

— S. Fein & P. Choksakulpan

 

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